Curzon Home Cinema
The Shirley of the title is, of course, Shirley Jackson, the much lauded author of short horror stories and novels, now back in the public consciousness after the recent success of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House.
As portrayed by Elisabeth Moss, the author is a bundle of neuroses, afflicted by agoraphobia, alcoholism and a seeming inability to stop smoking for more than ten seconds at a time. It’s the 1960s and Jackson is living with her pompous and manipulative university lecturer husband, Stanley (Michael Stulhbarg, brilliantly insufferable). She’s also struggling to rediscover her writing mojo.
And then along comes Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman), an aspiring junior professor and his pregnant wife, Rose (Odessa Young). Fred is seeking Stanley’s endorsement for a post at his college in Vermont and the young couple have been invited to live in the rambling family home. This initially seems appealing, but the upshot is that poor Rose finds herself cast as a kind of housekeeper, cooking meals and cleaning up around the place, while her husband throws himself headlong into the world of academia, (which seems to mean throwing himself at some of his young female students into the bargain.)
Rose also finds herself fascinated and disturbed in equal measure by Shirley’s writing, and it isn’t long before she’s become some kind of muse to the older woman. As their relationship deepens, it initiates changes in Rose’s persona and prompts her to look more deeply into the ‘based-on-true-life’ story that Shirley is currently working on…
This is a complex piece that takes its own sweet time to set out its stall and, in the process, it manages to create a convincing and suffocating world that is shot through with toxic domesticity. However, though it occasionally seems to hint at revelations hovering just out of our reach, it never seems to quite deliver them. This is a shame, but there are compensations, not least the performances, which are all accomplished.
Moss gets the showier role, portraying a character who can be as sweet as apple pie one moment and spitting venom the next, but it’s arguably Young who has the most difficult part, showing Rose’s gradual transition from a glamorous, passionate young woman into the twitchy, nervy receptacle of all of Shirley’s insecurities.
Based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell and adapted by Sarah Gubbins, the plot also seems to take a few liberties with the truth, but – when the main subject is a writer of fiction – perhaps this is excusable. In many ways, the film reminds me of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, another story where an older university lecturer and his alcoholic wife leech all of the life out of a younger, more optimistic couple.
Shirley may not quite add up to a perfect movie, but its nonetheless worth your attention, if only to relish those fine performances.